Published online 17 March 2010 | Nature 464, 330-331 (2010) | doi:10.1038/464330a
Corrected online: 31 March 2010

News

News briefing: 18 March 2010

The week in science

Policy|Business|Research|Events|People|Business watch|The week ahead|Number crunch|Sound bites

Policy

Review panel: Faced with numerous criticisms and an acknowledged mistake in its last assessment in 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) appointed the InterAcademy Council to conduct an independent review of its procedures on 10 March. The council, an international organization representing national science academies worldwide, will itself appoint a team to conduct the review later this month. The team will target a range of IPCC procedures as well as larger questions of organization, resources and communications. The final report is expected by August.

Stem-cell law: Legislation codifying US President Barack Obama's policy of allowing federal funding for human embryonic stem-cell research was introduced in Congress on 10 March. Representatives Diana DeGette (Democrat, Colorado) and Mike Castle (Republican, Delaware) sponsored the Stem Cell Research Advancement Act. The aim is to prevent the current presidential policy from being changed by future administrations. The proposed law, like Obama's policy, allows federal funding for research on stem-cell lines derived from embryos created for reproductive purposes that would otherwise be discarded.

Brain-drain reversal: Israel's cabinet has approved a five-year plan to bring Israeli-born researchers back to the country. As part of the scheme, to which the cabinet has allocated US$121 million, 30 centres of excellence will from this September begin to be established at the country's universities, creating positions for young scientists, social scientists and humanities researchers. The universities will have to raise further (unspecified) funds from private sources.

Acid ruling: The US Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to develop guidance to help US states address the increase in ocean acidification caused by carbon dioxide absorption. The decision, spelled out in an 11 March federal court settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity, based in Tucson, Arizona, stops short of regulation but does not preclude such action in the future.

Business

Nuclear stalling: India's coalition-led government has deferred introducing legislation that would have smoothed the way towards Indo-US trade in nuclear technology. The delayed bill would cap the liability of foreign nuclear reactor suppliers at 5 billion rupees (US$110 million), a clause that US companies would like as a precondition of selling nuclear equipment. Opposition parties in India protested that the cap would allow US companies to avoid responsibility for accidents. Countries such as France and Russia have already agreed to supply nuclear reactors to India, but an Indo-US nuclear deal signed in 2008 has still not resulted in trade.

Animal market shake-up: On 9 March, drug companies Merck and Sanofi-Aventis announced that they would merge their animal-health businesses. Merck, headquartered in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, and Sanofi-Aventis, headquartered in Paris, will have equal ownership in the new venture, which would be the largest player in the US$19-billion animal-health market.

Business watch

SOURCE: TRU GROUP

The appetite for lithium to supply batteries in mobile phones, laptops and electric cars is growing, but supplies are forecast to outstrip demand over the next decade. That would keep lithium prices low — and put eager new suppliers of the element out of business.

TRU Group, a consultancy based in Toronto, Canada, says that demand for lithium purified sufficiently for use in batteries will more than double over the coming decade, thanks in part to electric cars. Mining firms are busily signing deals with car manufacturers to supply lithium, and a few dozen new entrants are proposing other production ventures.

But TRU Group president Edward Anderson says that existing suppliers, mainly in South America, are fully capable of meeting demand (see chart). With the new proposals, the result is a nearly 50% oversupply in 2012 and significant surpluses through to the end of the decade. "Most of the money that's going into these [new] companies now is going to be lost to investors," Anderson says.

Chris Hartshorn, an analyst with Lux Research in Boston, Massachusetts, says that the lithium supply glut could carry over into the lithium-battery market, resulting in an eventual shake-out of battery manufacturers. That is good for the market in the long run, he says, but there will be some carnage along the way.

Research

Rocket test-fires: On its second attempt, commercial spaceflight company SpaceX has successfully test-fired all nine engines of its Falcon 9 rocket. The firm, based in Hawthorne, California, has a contract with NASA to take payloads to the International Space Station once the Shuttle retires. The 13 March static test precedes a full launch, which could happen within months.

Robot lost at sea: A pioneering underwater robot has been lost off the coast of Chile. First launched in 1995, the Autonomous Benthic Explorer, nicknamed 'ABE', was one of the earliest completely independent research submersibles, neither manned nor tethered to its research ship. It failed to resurface on its 222nd dive, perhaps because its buoyancy spheres imploded, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts announced on 9 March.

Institute shuffle: The US National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland, is to consolidate its national laboratories, says director Patrick Gallagher. He plans to reduce the number of agency labs from ten to six, putting researchers in larger, interdisciplinary groups aligned more with agency missions than individual scientific disciplines. Gallagher also wants to replace the deputy director position (currently vacant) with three associate directors — respectively managing research at the agency's labs; external industry programmes; and information technology, human resources and facilities.

Events

M. TEFRE/SVALBARD GLOBAL SEED VAULT

Seed vault banks half a million The Svalbard Global Seed Vault (pictured), which opened two years ago, now holds more than 250 million seeds and 520,000 crop varieties — around a third of the world's known 1.5 million crop strains. The Global Crop Diversity Trust, which oversees the seed bank, announced the passing of the half-a-million landmark on 11 March. Installed in the side of a mountain at Longyearbyen, a town in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, the bunker is designed to keep samples of the world's seeds safe at −18 °C, for backup in case disaster strikes global food production.

People

Astronomer 'not guilty': Phil Charles, a leading astronomer who was suspended as director of the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town, has been reinstated after a disciplinary hearing. The country's main funding agency, the National Research Foundation, removed Charles from his post in January, citing the leaking of confidential documents, but says that the hearing found him "not guilty on all charges". It did not explain what those charges were, and added that issues giving rise to the suspension might "still exist" and needed to be dealt with.

J. RAPO/ACA D. FINLAND

Geneticist dies: Human geneticist Leena Peltonen-Palotie (pictured) died on 11 March, aged 57. She pioneered the use of isolated populations to discover disease genes, analysing those in her native Finland to illuminate the genetic basis of at least 20 diseases. Deeply engaged in bioethical debates about genetics, Peltonen-Palotie was head of human genetics at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute near Cambridge, UK, and also headed research groups at the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland and the National Institute for Health and Welfare, both in Helsinki. She was also an associate member at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Saudi shift: Jean Fréchet, the high-profile organic polymer chemist at the University of California, Berkeley, has been appointed vice-president for research at the newly opened King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. From June 2010 to June 2011, Fréchet will oversee education and science at the fledgling university's nine research centres, and will develop 'innovation and enterprise' strategies.

The week ahead

21–25 March

The American Chemical Society holds its 2010 spring meeting in San Francisco, California. The conference's theme is green and sustainable chemistry.

go.nature.com/iLMbWg

22–23 March

London's Royal Society holds a meeting to discuss how scientists deal with uncertainty in their particular field — and how to communicate it.

go.nature.com/ZhthnH

22–26 March

Expect norms and guidelines for geoengineering experiments to emerge from a summit in Pacific Grove, California, where climate scientists are meeting to talk about the risks of climate intervention.

climateresponsefund.org

24–26 March

Both the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation meet in The Hague, the Netherlands to discuss shortfalls in their finances (see Nature 463, 415; 2010, and page 338).

go.nature.com/HHUHcM

Number crunch

82.4%

Estimated decline in bluefin tuna in the West Atlantic between 1970 and 2007. Delegates at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora meeting in Doha, Qatar, are debating whether to ban international trade in the fish.

Sound bites

"If I could get my hands on the person who proposed the current management structure I would strangle him."

William Brinkman, director of the US energy department's Office of Science, tells a departmental committee meeting there will be 'significant changes' to the management of ITER, the fusion project that has suffered cost overruns and delays (see Nature 463, 721; 2010).

Source: Fusion Power Associates  

Corrected:

The briefing item 'Review panel' wrongly stated that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had appointed the InterAcademy Council to review its procedures. The council was invited by the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization to conduct the review.
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